By David Barr
When I meet with newcomers to my parish, I get asked a basic question again and again: “How do I get engaged?” The question can mean different things — it can be about teaching, or volunteering, etc. — but generally what the person wants to know is, Can I find a living community in your church? Will I find friends? Will I belong in some way?
It’s a good question! And I’ve come to believe that if we can’t answer in the affirmative and follow through with cultivating communities of faith that actually satisfy relational needs, then all of our other efforts will struggle, if not cease, to matter.
For many decades, the Episcopal Church has done well using other community structures to create meaningful communities of faith. Schools, social interest groups, kindergartens, scout troops, various boards and leadership positions, and even just stable neighborhood communities have all provided a level of relational satisfaction. Episcopal parishes gladly partnered with these pre-existing structures. Of course, it has been a two-way street. In many places the church has enjoyed the privileges of having a place at the table within these various community structures, while it has also faithfully injected spiritual nourishment into these groups.
Much of this can likely be explained vis-à-vis Anglicanism’s historical coziness with political establishment and other national authority structures. It has probably always used other groups and structures to create community, while it provided the basic spiritual nourishment. Whatever one might think of that posture — that it is or is not embedded in patterns of prejudice — the church’s relationship with other community structures is clearly going away. Anecdotal evidence abounds, but even the hard data on the decline of the Episcopal Church is surely symbolic of an inability to create communities of faith that meaningfully minister to people’s relational needs. Which brings me to my main point: unless our parishes can create meaningful Christian communities, all of the renewed interest in liturgy and the Eucharist and historical forms of Christian rootedness will fade off into the night — another fad among others in North American Christianity.
Not only can we no longer bank on other institutions for communal energy, but we also cannot bank on being the obvious place of respite for the masses of folks leaving their traditions for more ostensibly stable ground. We need to be clear: if there is no place of genuine relational flourishing, interested newcomers will come and then go, and rightly so. As much as it feels like the Anglican tradition, even with all of its problems and divisions, is having a moment, I do not believe it can sustain its position of interest unless we open our lives to the communal work of this Spirit. Because even while we can offer catholicity to wayward Evangelicals, unless we can also offer community, then it will, very likely, not matter. One has to be catholic in a particular place, with particular people, in particular relationships. And this means establishing and nurturing communities that are relationally rich.
It isn’t only those Christians coming into the tradition that I worry about in this area, however. Community should exist for the sake of the church’s broader witness as well. Relational satidfaction and communal rootedness are hard to find, especially among younger demographics interested in finding some location of belonging. After many young people leave college there is a staggering dearth of opportunities for them to make valuable friendships. Again, gone are the days when someone might simply join the junior league or just come back to the town that they grew up in. Now folks go to climbing gyms and coffee shops and breweries, hoping to make friends or develop pre-existing work relationships, and yet it doesn’t seem that this is working all that well. If the church could creatively extend an invitation into something that looked like and smelled like true relational flourishing, then we would have something to offer the world that goes beyond liturgical beauty or whatever else folks might be seeking. Fellowship for the sake of friendship is now a profound gift, and it is undeniably persuasive. People want to be known.
I realize much about this plea might sound pedantic, and yet, I do believe we have the chance to be part of some curious movement of the Spirit. Even if liturgy might simply be “on brand” these days, it is also innately powerful. And so, to foster living Christian communities that are coupled with traditioned patterns of living and worshiping is, I believe, a promising way forward. In fact, it may be one of our only ways forward, beyond American culture veiled in a spiritual gossamer of therapeutic truisms. There is no hope aside from what has been passed down to us in the gospel, and there is no other body that might carry it aside from Christ’s own — his Church. Whatever our hopes may be for Anglicanism, it must surely be lived out in Christian communities that nourish our souls. This is challenging work to be sure, and yet what work could be more satisfying? Don’t we all long for the similar relational places of belonging?
Community is not a sociologically patchwork response to a deeper theological issue, rather it is the simple recognition that God’s mission to the world has always involved the constitution of a particular people whose efforts are guided and defined by love — a specific kind of love: God’s. Our worship matters; our proclamation matters; and both become believable by means of relationships. Many people might yet come to our tradition for the liturgy. But they will likely only stay for community.